Some years ago the school I worked in had no real accountability measures or explicit expectations about how teachers marked their books. Consequently, many never did, and the vast majority of the others (including myself) did it sporadically and with no real impact or reason. It was very much a case of ticking the pages and leaving a “well done” or a “good work” at the bottom to show the student that their books had been looked at. I remember a training day where teachers who were deemed outstanding were asked to put on exemplary lessons for teachers to partake in. It was a great experience but what shocked me was that in one lesson the books were marked with nothing other than ticks and “well dones”. Clearly not “outstanding” practice (whatever that may be, but that’s another discussion!).
Then, about 3 or 4 years ago, I started to read quite widely about educational practice and realised that this simply wasn’t good enough. Hattie and Wiliam published their stuff and it became apparent to those of us that read this kind of thing that marking and feedback probably the single most important thing a teacher can do to improve student progress, if done well.
So I decided to change my ways. When I sat down and thought about it, which I’d never done previously, I realised that sometimes I only marked some sets of books once or twice a term. Where was the good in that? By the time the work was marked, students had moved on to a new topic! The marking was irrelevant! The second problem, I realised, was that the comments weren’t targeted at the work the students had produced; they were simply generic praise or encouragement.
To tackle these two issues I resolved to do two things: mark more frequently and regularly, and ensure that the comments I wrote were actually referring to the quality of the work students had produced and suggest ways they could improve. These two simple things seem so obvious now, but working in a culture where these basic things are not seen as normal and marking isn’t ever spoken about or monitored creates a situation in which terrible practice can develop.
Anyway, I decided to start tracking my marking using a spreadsheet (something that I still do) so that I could see when each set of books had been marked. This turned out to be a fantastic tool in supporting and motivating my marking. The visual record of highlighted and un-highlighted boxes served as a catalyst to ensure that each class got their fair share of attention and that no books were left for an unacceptable period of time.
The second change, the quality of comments, was also massive. As well as marking for literacy errors throughout a piece of work (which I’d always done), I began leave one comment at the end that embodied both some praise and formative feedback, for example “Lovely description with excellent choice of similes, but please revise the rule for using apostrophes.” Clearly this was much better. But I still didn’t see a lot of impact.
I began looking at other colleagues’ work. I determined to steer well clear of the frankly patronising and nauseating “2 stars and a wish” that some colleagues employed, but I did discover that one colleague separated out the two parts of the comment, beginning with a positive and then setting out the target for improvement below next to a circled capital letter “T”. Again, better, but still no real impact on progress.
At this time it began to be picked up by the SLT, thanks to a county visit, that actually marking is quite important (you’ll detect a hint of understatement here), and they began to talk more about marking and make their new higher expectations more evident. HoDs suddenly felt that the answer was to have pages that had more teacher feedback than student work on them. The emphasis was on the quantity of what was written, and this was reflected in the scrutinies. I am fairly confident that I could have covered those pages in irrelevant scrawl and, provided there was plenty of it, the scrutinies wouldn’t have picked this up.
And, as I stated earlier, still no real impact. So what was missing? From a 2014 perspective, it will be obvious to most: a lack of DIRT time. Giving students the time and space to reflect on their prior learning, respond to teacher comments, make corrections, redraft their work and enter into a dialogue with the teacher about what they have done. Couple this with high quality peer assessment and you have, in my opinion, the silver bullet. The gaps will close, the students will make progress and, if done regularly and routinized, a culture of learning and aspiration will begin to develop.
The last thing that we introduced, which I think really makes for great practice, was the use of highlighters in our marking. Rather than just having the two comments at the end with a positive and a target, we now colour code these in blue and yellow. Blue = www (what went well), yellow = ebi (even better if). The students know what the colours stand for and the students work looks great. We don’t cover the whole lot in highlighter, but pick out key bits that correspond to the comments at the end. And, if you keep on top of it, it really isn’t all that time consuming.
So, why the blog title? I few weeks ago I was discussing with my new headteacher the importance of marking and feedback, and he coined this phrase, acknowledging the potentially back breaking work load associated with good marking that isn’t carried out in a smart way. “Teachers need to be marking for effect, not marking for England.”
And herein lies the rub; great marking that has an impact isn’t about teachers writing a lot in books, in fact sometimes we may not need to write anything. I don’t like to comment extensively on class notes and things like that. Comments should be reserved for pieces of writing that are original and demonstrate a student’s learning and ideas and they should be targeted in a way that supports and develops that learning and those ideas. It should only ever focus on the work in the book and it should consist of questions, targeted comments, peer assessment and DIRT time, not lines and lines of generic blather telling the student how lovely they are and how much the teacher thinks of them.